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What have you not read?

August 12, 2013

Our reading deficiencies can haunt us—not the skill but our reading “oeuvre,” the sum of our consumption. What have you not read? Moby Dick? Ulysses? In Search of Lost Time? Indeed, you should be ashamed.

In solidarity with all such deficient readers, I confess that until last month I had not read a novel by John LeCarre. There. It is said.

My brother had tried to convince me. Friends extolled LeCarre’s virtues, hoping to increase my own. Recently, a friend mentioned one small example of careful insight in LeCarre’s new novel, and I gave in.

“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” is famous, seminal, so I started there. I finished it in Santa Fe, which means nothing except that we had Internet in the house, so that night we downloaded the movie (Richard Burton, Claire Bloom) from YouTube ($2.99).

It makes an interesting project of its own to read a book and then watch the movie. There are many such combinations. I thought “The Accidental Tourist” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” were especially good adaptations

What’s changed or left out altogether from the movie often infuriates fans of the book. Sometimes things are cut for the sake of simplicity or time, but sometimes one can only shrug and wonder.

In “The Spy …,” the name of the spy’s love interest is changed, Anglicized. Her Jewishness is dropped. It dilutes the relationships and subtext for the movie, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine why it was done other than for some Hollywood-cultural context of the time.

But we have the Criterion Collection edition of the movie coming soon to the library. Perhaps the interview with LeCarre will shed light on this decision.

Next, I went back to the first of the George Smiley series, “A Call for the Dead,” and now have skipped to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” I don’t consider it compulsive reading on my part, merely thoroughness.

One advantage of discovering an author late is the ready buffet laid before you. Long-time fans must wait, devouring each new work but then starving until the next.

The movie of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” is quite beautiful, black and white, moody to suit the cynical atmosphere of the book and the frightening potential in Richard Burton’s alcoholic character, the book’s protagonist.

The movie was still fresh in my mind one night as I sat on our porch at 3:30 a.m. with tea and toast. Except for the orange glare of streetlights, the scene was essentially a black and white film.

At first, it was completely still. I positioned myself so a post on the porch blocked the glare of one streetlight. Thus, I could see much better, see more stars.

Soon, an SUV drove along 4^th St., came to a full and complete stop, something you rarely see during the day (we should do away with all stop signs), and turned up F St. It’s remarkably complex noise faded to silence again.

But the night is never truly silent—a distant bang from the post office, a faraway owl, scuttling in the vines beside me. Then, a hissing sound from sprinklers in the park. Diaphanous veils of spray appeared and disappeared like ghosts dancing in the dark.

A black cat crossed the sidewalk in front of me, and a moth bounced among the wildflowers. These disappeared, too, and all was still again—like the feeling when you finally close a good book and are done.

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